Growing Up in Central Oregon: Introduction

This is a series I’ve been mulling over for a while now and even at one point promised Simone I would write. I’ve been wanting to write it partly because I think the perspective of growing up in rural Central Oregon is unique, and partly because I think there’s some good stories to tell. So bear with me.

First off: an introduction. The background. I’m laying the groundwork and setting the stage…

We moved to Central Oregon in 1976, when I was three years old. At that time Bend was still a tiny timber town and my dad had a job with then-Willamette Industries’ particle board plant. Rather than living in Bend, however, my parents purchased a house on five acres east of town, at the edge of the bump-in-the-road known as Alfalfa.

Aerial view of Alfalfa OregonAlfalfa is located roughly 15 miles east of Bend and 25 miles southeast of Redmond, north of Highway 20 and near the Deschutes-Crook County border. It’s primarily an agricultural community, with acres of irrigated field crops and livestock dropped right down into the middle of the desert, a verdant oasis of farmland carved out of the sand, sagebrush, bunch grass, scrub juniper and outcroppings of lava rock. Aside from the fields and farms, there’s a small general store and gas station, a grange hall, a power substation and not much else. (The old Alfalfa School, which I attended through fourth grade, closed many years ago.)

Oddly enough, even though closer geographically to Bend, Alfalfa resides within the Redmond school district. The Redmond school district, in fact, was a marvelous bit of Central Oregon gerrymandering: not only did it encompass Alfalfa, but also Sisters, Terrebonne, and, most puzzling of all Tumalo, which is situated at Bend’s back porch. Consequently, Redmond had the second largest school system in the entire state of Oregon, outside of Portland.

Or so we were told. As kids faced with a one-way bus ride of 45 minutes to an hour, we were not impressed.

While much of Alfalfa is a farming community, our five acres only had the minimum of what one could consider a farm: we raised chickens, we had one milk cow on an acre of pasture, and we had vegetable gardens. The majority of the acreage was natural High Desert. As a result I never really identified with the farming mindset one would expect from rural living; looking back, I can see a distinction between what I would dub “Desert Folk” (like ourselves) and Farmers.

I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. But there’s definitely a different viewpoint from growing up on a farm or ranch—where you are literally living your livelihood—and growing up on one of these desert parcels. I’d venture to say living on the desert lent more of a freedom and immediacy to us as kids than to farming kids; don’t get me wrong, there were chores—chickens to feed, for instance—but none of the same general commitments to growing up on a farm.

Okay, now that I’ve muddied up that issue…

The only way to get to our house was to leave the highway and travel about a mile down a gravel road. Actually, calling it a “gravel road” is entirely too generous; it was actually a rocky road scratched out of the dirt, loosely scattered with red cinders. Of course, the mailboxes and the school bus stop were both situated at the highway; both activities (checking the mail and catching the bus) were thus not casual jaunts. If you missed the bus, there were good odds that you missed the bus, and if you couldn’t catch it a few miles down the road (drive like mad!), you were out of luck. More than a few nightmares involved running late for the bus stop and seeing the bus flash by without stopping…

Rural living also imbued me with an appreciation for space; our nearest neighbor was about a quarter of a mile away, as the crow flied. You know the phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors”? I think a better version of that would be “A few acres make good neighbors.” Even though I can appreciate the convenience of living in town, I’d still be perfectly happy out on a few acres somewhere, with the nearest neighbors up over the hill.

This should give you a pretty decent idea of where I’m coming from. Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface, and there are plenty of tales to tell… all true, of course. :)

4 Replies to “Growing Up in Central Oregon: Introduction”

  1. Nice going, Jon. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Didn’t know you grew up with chickens and cows – that sheds a whole new light on you … 😉

    Looking forward to Part 2.

  2. Every time I read one of your local posts like this, it really inspires me to write up something, too — then I get distracted and too busy, and then nobody gets to hear about my sheeps and goats that I had growing up, and how I thought for the longest time that one of the goats was my dog (I was little).

    But a good read, and I look forward to the next part as well.

  3. Actually I have no "comment" but was wondering if you had any idea where the original Tumalo grange hall stood before it was torn down in 1975. I’m on a quest !! and would appreciate any help I can get.

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